Songs of Protest was a BBC radio programme written by Charles Chilton and presented by Ted Moult, broadcast on BBC Radio 2 in 1977. A version presented by Spike Milligan was broadcast in 1979. The series tells the history of protest songs through the political movements in England and America that inspired them down the years, from the peasants revolt through the industrial revolution to the civil rights movement.
Paul Graney recorded the shows (illegally, but everybody did it) off-air from his bedsit in Whalley Range. He had a habit of recording anything relating to music and politics and adding it to his archive of tapes. The upshot of all this is that we have a complete set of the shows in the sound archives at Manchester Central Library. Here’s Paul doing his thing.
The first episode starts with the story of the civil rights song We Shall Overcome. This is from the Spike Milligan version (copyright BBC):
Here is a recording of the song made by Stan Mason in October 1965 of the Hooters on the last night of their club in Birkenhead. Stan was similar to Paul in one respect – he seemed to take a tape recorder to every gig he went to! (MASON/18)
Later in the first radio show we learn about how one song, ‘What a court hath old England‘, started as an English ballad, then later became a song against unfair royal taxation in England, and then again was used to protest against England’s role in American revolutionary war, and was much later used to protest against the treatment of textile workers in Stockport in the nineteenth century (copyright BBC):
Another tune, ‘The queen’s old courtier’, has travelled widely and its meaning, lyrics and verses changed each time. Songs of Protest traces the song’s transformation from an anti-James I protest song, into a satirical song sending up Prince Albert’s German roots, into an abolitionist song satirising slave-owning southern gentlemen, and finally introduces Charles Dicken’s anti-Tory version from 1841. Dickens pitches his parody as a song to be sung ‘at all Conservative dinners’ (copyright BBC):
This is Dorothy Fryman singing Charles Dickens’s version of the song, recorded by Paul Graney in her home in the 1970s. To me the Dickens lyrics seem impossibly contemporary – it could have been written yesterday. I suppose that’s the mark of a good protest song. (GRANEY/368)
The Charles Chilton archive (C1186) is being digitised by the British Library as part of Unlocking Our Sound Heritage. You can listen to the whole Songs of Protest series online. The show has aged a lot in the forty years since it was broadcast but it still provides a good introduction to the history of protest in song. Short clips from BBC broadcasts are re-used here under the ‘fair dealing’ exemption for news and review.